I never was that much of a science-fiction aficionado. But I’m sure as a child I occasionally borrowed some sci-fi literature from the library and watched the odd episode of Star Trek – ok, lots of episodes of Star Trek. I’m sure there was a time when it was generally thought that robots would be our kindly household helpers, machines would instantly cure diseases and generate whatever food we fancied.
In contrast, these days, we tend to tend to read more about how robots, or rather, their upgrade, artificial intelligence (AI), will be making us jobless, oppressing us and quite possibly killing us. I happen to think that we shouldn’t be quite that worried about AI, for any number of reasons: I think we switch them on, so we can switch them off. I think that even if we create them to teach themselves and to learn things, we give them the algorithms by which they “decide” whether something is a good move worth learning, repeating and developing, or not. I think that we tend to do ok in creating governance and codes for the development of science and technology. I think that even if they end up doing our jobs better than we could ever do them, they will create greater prosperity and it becomes a question of the distribution of the goods they create, rather than a fight of human beings against machines. (I also think we should stop talking about them as “they” as if they were the other grouping in an “us and them” situation, and only talk about them as “they” in the sense that we would talk about, say the contents of our toolbox as “they”, as in “I don’t know where I have left my hammer and nails, maybe they’re in the cupboard under the stairs.”)
I may be right or wrong about AI, but that’s not the point right now. Hannah Arendt wrote about “the highly non-respectable literature of science fiction” that “unfortunately, nobody yet has paid the attention it deserves [to it] as a vehicle of mass sentiments and mass desires.” And so the thing that really interests me here, is not whether AI is going to leave us out of work, and quite possibly extinct, or not, but what it says about us a species, humanity, that we are so lacking in confidence with regard to our future machines. The mass sentiments here are fear, pessimism and a lack of confidence in our future as a species. This has replaced the mass desire with regard to future machines that they should make us creatures of leisure and comfort. We’ve gone from “the robots will do the work, which is nice” to “Oh my God, the AIs will do our work, we’ll all be jobless.”
A German compound noun that deserves to be as well known as those others, Zeitgeist, Schadenfreude and Weltschmerz, is Menschenbild. It means the image man has of himself. Or – since we should be wary of being unclear in languages where the word for “human being” and “man” is the same – the image human beings have of themselves. I generally find it difficult to say what the prevailing humanity-wide view is on anything, but it’s worth thinking a bit about the image we have of ourselves these days and whether our mass sentiment of lacking confidence with regard to our future and the unfriendly robots is founded in it.
Our Menschenbild has famously made a long journey over the last few millennia from one where we were at the centre of God’s universe to one where we are at the margins of a chaotic, sprawling and expanding universe full of dark matter and other uncharted waters, from one where we were put in charge of God’s creation to one where we have randomly evolved from matter that was coincidentally brought to life, and from one where we were the masters of our fate, to one where we’re barely in control of our minds.
I am interested in what further staging post on this journey we have reached. It’s genuinely difficult to judge what “most people” believe about these big questions. But I’ll speculate that a feature of our most up-to-date image of ourselves we are three things: a) we are destructive of the world, our habitat, and other species, b) we are our neurophysiology, and c) we are addicted. (Spoiler alert: I’m not arguing that these views are correct.)
Destructive of the World
There’s nothing new about apocalyptic phantasies, and nothing new about the idea that human beings can’t control the powers and technologies that we created (see the Sorcerer’s Apprentice). But I think we’ve generally lost confidence in our ability to prevent climate change from becoming catastrophic. But even if we haven’t, there’s still plastic pollution, biodiversity loss, soil degradation, overpopulation and other problems. It seems to us that our lifestyle is destroying the planet with its natural resources that are also the foundation for our lifestyle. Our self-image now is less that we’re the crown of creation and more that we’re a virus that is making our host sick in order to multiply and support ourselves.
Plato thought that there are three parts of our soul (the appetitive, the spirited and the rational) that need to be brought into balance and the right kind of hierarchy in order for us to be good. Freud believed that the psyche was made up of three parts (super-ego, ego and id). So there’s nothing new about the idea that our minds have different parts. What’s new in our current image of ourselves now, is that we no longer talk about the soul, the psyche, the mind, but about the brain. This brain has different systems, each with their own functions, depending on the evolutionary stage at which they emerged. There is no hierarchy between these systems, just neural pathways, synapses and electrons firing between them. It’s not so much that we have brains, but that we are brains.
Closely linked to our neurophysiological nature, our natural state is to be addicted. Dopamines in our brains have the strongest control over everything we do. The same mechanism drives heroin addiction, a penchant for cupcakes and any habits we may have acquired (like brushing our teeth after eating cupcakes). But then, the range of things to which we can be addicted has massively expanded to include social media likes for our selfies, shopping, and thinking. As über-guru, Eckhart Tolle says:
Compulsive thinking is actually an addiction. What characterises an addiction? Quite simply this: you no longer feel that you have the choice to stop. It seems stronger than you. It also gives you a false sense of pleasure, pleasure that invariably turns into pain.
And brain-scans show that the brain that isn’t in a meditative state, is in an addicted state. (It so happens that meditation teachers describe the neurophysiology as a way of explaining that we could be more aware and intentional about our actions, but the description of our neurophysiological nature sticks more strongly in the public consciousness than the idea that we could gain control over it.
This combination of beliefs results in the most limiting of limiting beliefs: the belief that we are fundamentally unfree. We are set on our self-destructive journey by our brain chemistry. And because we basically are our brains now, there is nothing we can set against it.
And so someone like Yuval Noah Harari, the chronicler of homo sapiens, tells us:
Unfortunately, “free will” isn’t a scientific reality. It is a myth inherited from Christian theology. Theologians developed the idea of “free will” to explain why God is right to punish sinners for their bad choices and reward saints for their good choices. If our choices aren’t made freely, why should God punish or reward us for them? According to the theologians, it is reasonable for God to do so, because our choices reflect the free will of our eternal souls, which are independent of all physical and biological constraints.
This myth has little to do with what science now teaches us about Homo sapiens and other animals. Humans certainly have a will – but it isn’t free.
If you believe in the traditional liberal story, you will be tempted simply to dismiss this challenge. “No, it will never happen. Nobody will ever manage to hack the human spirit, because there is something there that goes far beyond genes, neurons and algorithms. Nobody could successfully predict and manipulate my choices, because my choices reflect my free will.” Unfortunately, dismissing the challenge won’t make it go away. It will just make you more vulnerable to it.
It starts with simple things. As you surf the internet, a headline catches your eye: “Immigrant gang rapes local women”. You click on it. At exactly the same moment, your neighbour is surfing the internet too, and a different headline catches her eye: “Trump prepares nuclear strike on Iran”. She clicks on it. Both headlines are fake news stories, generated perhaps by Russian trolls, or by a website keen on increasing traffic to boost its ad revenues. Both you and your neighbour feel that you clicked on these headlines out of your free will. But in fact you have been hacked.
Unfortunately the myth that “scientific reality” suggests that there is nothing beyond genes, neutrons and algorithms is much more likely to make us helpless against the commercially exploitative, criminal or malign actors who, according to Harari, are hacking us. When we believe that we are helplessly exposed to the signals we see online, that we can’t help but click on what is marketed to us, can’t help but believe, buy even, what we read and can’t help but act on what we’ve been sold, we are less likely to pause and reflect on the different courses of action that are open to us, to read critically what we see and to feel responsible what we do next. Much as Harari sells us this “scientific” unfree image of the human being, he is giving us a description of people who have already imbibed the self-limiting belief, not a description of what human beings could be at their best. Hopefully, the leaps from the image people clicking on links online to the conclusion that we have been hacked and have no free will seem to most people to be so full of non-sequiturs that we need not be overly worried by it. And ultimately, who are the agents who are hacking and manipulating us? Other human beings. How come they have the necessary agency, alongside their ingenuity and technical skills to hack us and implement their evil plans, when we can’t even decide what (not) to click on?
The neurophysiological, addicted, destructive self-image, widely held though it may be, is limited and limiting but fortunately it is not the only one available. Exploring more positive alternatives will be a matter for a future post!
[This post has had a great response. I wrote an addition to it reacting to some comments here.]